Change offers way to shorten public contract disputes

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Capital News Service
LANSING – A change in Michigan’s binding arbitration law could save money for local governments, said Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union based in Trenton.
But Rep. Gail Haines, R-Waterford, who voted against the change, said, “This bill expands binding arbitration beyond what was originally intended.
“I also have serious concerns that the unintended consequence of the bill will be that local governments will not be able to afford to provide services,” she said, during the House debate.
A 1969 law created a system of binding arbitration for county and township police, firefighters and emergency response technicians to settle contract disputes between their unions and the public agencies.
The change, which passed both the House and the Senate, would limit the length of the arbitration process to 180 days, reduced from the current average of 12 to 18 months, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm supports the change as well, said Katie Cary of the governor’s communications office. However, the bill has not yet reached Granholm’s desk.
Townships, counties, cities and municipalities agreed on the changes, which are intended to shorten negotiations and save communities money, Docherty said.
Public employees do not have the right to strike, Docherty said, and binding arbitration is a way to resolve contract negotiation impasses.
If unions and municipalities cannot agree on a contract, an arbitrator would be assigned to resolve the dispute, Docherty said.
“We believe it’s the fairest way to do that,” Docherty said. Before the economy turned, arbitrators sided with the municipalities 53 percent of the time on contract issues.
With the state’s poor economy however, that percentage has increased to between 70 and 80 percent, Docherty said. Additionally, fewer cases are going to arbitration.
The arbitration law is intended to encourage municipalities to bargain with unions, Docherty said, but isn’t currently used much because both sides are compromising on their own rather than using an arbitrator.
Municipalities want to oppose the increases that police and fire want, Docherty said. They want to get rid of the law altogether.
Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland said, “We’re not anti-police or anti-fire.” He also voted against the change.
“Our paradigm has changed. The rules that were set up decades ago for public employees, we’re still living under them even though the economy has changed,” Haveman said.
“Our local communities are suffering,” he said. “They need more money or they need to change how they do business.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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